05 February 2014

Civility in the Face of Contemptuous Provocation (Anton Casey)?

Referring to Anton Casey's remarks that had riled Singaporeans, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said:

"[Casey] has done something wrong, [and we should] repudiate it, condemn it, but do not lower ourselves to that same level to behave in a way which really makes us all so ashamed of ourselves to become abusive, hateful mobs, especially online and anonymously.

We risk having an over-reaction, we risk having unrestrained, anonymous viciousness on the Internet.

You scold, you swear, you curse — all the wrong instincts get fed and in a group, there are certain group dynamics and it is like a pack of hounds hunting, which is bad. We have to be better than that, to deal with situations civilly, patiently, tolerantly. Hold a stand, but remain a civilised human being."

What Did Casey Write?
Casey made the following statements (reworded):

MRT commuters are poor.

Travelling on the MRT left a stench on him that had to be removed before he could continue with his life.

Was PM Lee justified in his admonition?

MRT Commuters Are Poor
This observation may be closer to the truth than we care to admit. Perhaps, MRT commuters — which include non-citizens, and there are two non-citizens for every three citizens on this land — are poor.

There are 970,600 work permit holders in Singapore. 211,000 are foreign domestic workers who earn a few hundred dollars a month. 306,500 are construction workers.

The monthly income (excluding employer CPF) from work of full-time employed residents is $3,250 (median) and $1,700 (20th percentile, which means that one-fifth of full-time employed residents earn less than $1,700).

205,000 or 10 per cent of the resident workforce are part-timers. Their monthly income (excluding employer CPF) is $800. 85,400 part-timers are under-employed i.e., they are willing and able to work longer hours.

Our Gini coefficient (based on the modified OECD scale) of 0.457 is dismal.

A person who has full-time employment should be paid enough by his employer to lead a decent lifestyle.

The Government refuses to introduce a minimum wage in Singapore, preferring to selectively use a "progressive wage model" which licenses companies in sectors which seemingly do not otherwise need to be licensed in order to give effect to minimum wages.

The Government refuses to set an official poverty line, though it does help the needy.

Perhaps, Casey may be right — there are quite a number of poor people in Singapore.

If Casey is right, who then should be offended, or more offended — the people or the Government? Why doesn't the Government seem offended?

Dependence on Foreigners
Casey is a migrant worker, holding a high paying job on an employment pass in one of the key drivers of the Singapore economy.

The Government portrays our economy and our future as being dependent on foreign multinational companies establishing operations in Singapore and on foreigners, talented or otherwise, willing to work in Singapore, rather than these companies and individuals being located elsewhere competing against Singapore.

This probably explains PM Lee's statement:

"My philosophy is, yes this is bad ... (but) we have to maintain a certain equanimity and manage them without damaging our overall relationships."

We don't want to hurt our business and community relationships, but we shouldn't be paranoid. We welcome foreigners (to the extent that they do not take away jobs from equally qualified, or almost equally qualified, citizens) but we should not submit meekly to any attempts by anyone to dominate, ill treat or abuse us, lest the outliers amongst them are emboldened into thinking that they are indeed superior to us and we are subservient to them. We must disabuse them of such mistaken notions.

It is doubtful whether people in the West will maintain their equanimity over contemptuous comments such as those made by Casey, or for that matter, whether their governments will urge them to do so. It won't be surprising if some people in some countries may even really lynch Casey if he had made those comments there. Fortunately for Casey, Singaporeans do not go to the extreme and put death threats into action (assuming such threats were really made).

Are Casey's contempt for Singapore not sufficient grounds for the Government to revoke his permanent residency?

Dealing with Agitation
Perhaps, the Government is fearful that forceful verbal condemnation of Casey may spread to forceful verbal condemnation of Government policies.

Clearly, the less opposition to the Government's policies and the more docile the people, the easier it is for the Government to rule. But are these necessarily in the long-term interest of the country?

The vociferous response to Casey's comments is a godsend for the Government, and gives it valuable ammunition for its efforts to restrain what it sees are the extremes or excesses of social media.

For PM Lee, the lynch mob mentality with its unrestrained and anonymous viciousness on the Internet complicates Singapore society's fault lines (one of which being between citizens and newcomers).

The reality is that our unhappiness with migrant workers stems not from xenophobia per se but from the Government's mis-calibrated opening of the floodgates, allowing them to take away our PMET jobs and place our infrastructure under tremendous strain. And, of course, the 6.9 million "population planning target".

Reining in the social media will only paper over this fault line but do nothing to cure it.

Final Thoughts
When a person insults us on the Internet, it may be possible to remain cool and respond in a civil, patient and tolerant manner. We can take our time before hitting the "send" key.

How do we respond when a person insults us in a face-to-face encounter?

How do we respond as a country when another country insults us?


1. PM Lee Cautions Against Lynch Mob Mentality TODAY 29 Jan 2014.

2. DEPARTMENT OF STATISTICS Labour Force in Singapore, 2013.

3. DEPARTMENT OF STATISTICS Key Household Income Trends, 2012.

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